Hjorth, Frederik. Ethnicization in Welfare State Politics. (2016)

Hjorth, Frederik. Ethnicization in Welfare State Politics. Copenhagen: Dissertation. University of Copenhagen, 2016.

A class of countries, so-called universal welfare states, distinguish themselves by having developed encompassing welfare states with high levels of economic redistribution. In recent decades, these countries have also experienced considerable immigration from non-Western countries and, accordingly, rising levels of ethnic diversity. Since higher levels of ethnic diversity are globally associated with lower levels of economic redistribution, scholars have hypothesized that rising ethnic diversity will put downwards pressure on redistribution levels in universal welfare states. In the literature on this question, the case of the United States has become a near-universal analytical template for how to think about the effects of diversity on redistribution. Americans’ attitudes toward welfare are widely considered ‘racialized’, i.e. in part based on attitudes toward racial outgroups. By the same token, we can think of political attitudes in universal welfare states as potentially ‘ethnicized’, i.e. in part based on attitudes toward ethnic outgroups. In this dissertation, I examine when and how ethnicization occurs. The dissertation’s frame, chapters 1–3, presents my argument and ties the dissertation’s papers together. I begin by outlining empirical patterns which challenge the predictions of prevailing theoretical approaches. Contrary to typical predictions, changes in ethnic diversity are not robustly associated with changes in welfare spending. At the same time, citizens in universal welfare states readily subscribe to anti-immigrant attitudes. I argue that this confusion stems in part from insufficient attention to citizen psychology. I outline a framework based on evolutionary psychology which accounts for why citizens’ policy attitudes can be ethnicized, but also why some issues are more likely to be ethnicized than others. In short, attitudes are ethnicized when citizens are exposed to group cues, from local contexts or mass media, that provide a meaningful link between the policy and stereotypes about an ethnic outgroup. By this criterion, welfare is not likely to be ethnicized, but other issues – e.g., European integration and crime – are. The existing literature, often too mechanically applying the American experience onto universal welfare states, has tended to miss this point.

The dissertation includes four academic papers, presented in chapters 4–7. In paper A, ‘Who benefits’, I demonstrate the role of stereotypes in opposition to European cross- border welfare rights, often denoted ‘welfare chauvinism’. In an original large-scale survey experiment, respondents’ evaluations of the policy are sensitive to cues about recipients’ country of origin and family size.

In paper B, ‘European integration’, I argue that political salience of immigration can ethnicize attitudes toward European integration. I first compare two euro referendums, showing that only where immigration was salient did ethnic prejudice predict vote choice and a subset of voters explain their vote in terms of identity. I then demonstrate a similar pattern in cross-national time-series data, showing that immigration attitudes and support for European integration are more closely associated when immigration is politically salient.

In paper C, ‘Immigration debate’, I analyze media coverage of immigration in Danish news media across 25 years. Many accounts characterize coverage as having grown increasingly negative over time. Analyzing the full text of a sample of 68,000 newspaper articles, I provide evidence against the posited negative trend. I also show that the most negative newspapers, tabloids, disproportionately cover immigration through stories about crime.

In paper D, ‘Local contexts’, I propose that exposure to rising ethnic diversity in the local context can in itself give rise to group-centric attitudes. Using two large data sets on citizen attitudes and local ethnic diversity, I show that crime and immigration attitudes are more closely associated in ethnically diverse localities. The finding challenges prevailing explanations of group-centric attitudes, which have tended to emphasize the role of elites. Altogether, these papers illustrate the influence of group identities in political cognition. They suggest that compared to predictions in the existing literature, ethnicization is at once more limited (in that it occurs for some issues, but not the widely studied case of welfare) and more pervasive (in that in can arise from local contexts as well as from media). It is an important mechanism by which immigration can influence political life, even when the agenda ostensibly revolves around something else.